The Spool / Movies
“Captive State” Succeeds As A Spy Thriller, But Fails Its Characters
Rupert Wyatt's dark sci-fi allegory about a Chicago occupied by sinister alien forces features some smart, subversive sequences but lacks strong characters.
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The action saves Rupert Wyatt’s sci-fi allegory from its one-dimensional characters.


In the near future, an alien invasion will occur. Humanity will be overwhelmed and the governments of the world will sign armistice agreements with the aliens. Barricaded “closed zones” will be built in the major cities, and excavation will begin to extricate Earth’s natural resources for shipment off-world. Despite several failed attempts, however, there is a human faction that continues to rebel against the alien overlords.

This is the premise of USA’s Colony, a television series that ran for three years before it was cancelled last year. The series made the bold choice to focus not on the larger Independence Day-style military machinations required to fight an otherworldly invasion, but rather a single family caught in the conflict. In this way, it eschewed the major battle sequences and alien special effects of traditional alien sci-fi series, opting instead for a “boots on the ground” perspective that lent itself to family melodrama and spy thrillers.

All of these details also apply to Captive State, the new film by director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Unfortunately Colony worked because it invested time and depth into its characters, not simply the tricky plotting of insurgent attacks.

Captive State, on the other hand. doesn’t fare quite as well.

The film opens with a man and woman driving desperately around Chicago, which is barricaded and guarded by police. Radio reports confirm that the city – and by extension the world – is under attack. The car’s inhabitants are desperate to escape the city, which is in gridlock and on the cusp of martial law. The car crashes through a blockade and into an underpass where spindly-legged creatures are congregating. But before he can back up, he and the woman are vaporized into red mist. Only then does the camera cut to a reverse shot to reveal that there are two teenagers sitting petrified in the backseat.

Captive State plays like a spy thriller and it is here where it excels.

The action picks up nine years later to simultaneously explore two stories. One centers on Gabriel Drummond (Ashton Sanders, Moonlight), the younger of the two boys from the opening sequence, and his desire to escape from Pilsen, the Chicago neighbourhood where he has been living. Gabriel has a job, a girlfriend, Rula (CAM’s Madeline Brewer), a thief for a best friend in Jurgis (Bird Box’s Machine Gun Kelly) and a plan to get away, but something about the character doesn’t work. Even when he is linked to the insurgents via John Goodman’s Special Agent William Mulligan because of his older brother, Rafe (Jonathan Majors), the character feels…inconsequential.

While the Drummond brothers are meant to be the emotional heart of the narrative, Captive State falters when it spends too long on their relationship because Gabriel, Rafe and even Mulligan simply aren’t that interesting. Sanders does well in the role, but the character has no depth and his desire to escape means that he is an unwilling player in the action, which is only when he hasn’t been sidelined completely.

John Goodman in ‘Captive State’

By comparison, Captive States excels when Wyatt and his co-writer Erica Beeney focus on the film’s other main storyline: an insurgent attack timed to coordinate with a Unity Rally targeting a high-ranking member of the human alliance that is cooperating with the aliens. In this capacity, Captive State plays like a spy thriller and it is here where it excels.

The film contains two significant action sequences (neither of which involve Gabriel). In the first, the insurgent network sends out a coded message to set up and execute the Unity Day attack. It’s a magnificent extended sequence that begins with mission coordinator Ellison (James Ransone) confirming the mission will go ahead and activating his agents. The sequence plays out via an intricate system of payphone calls, Classified ads, musical cues on the radio, and even a strategically positioned dog. Once all of the players are assembled, the group converges on the packed football stadium to infiltrate, set up position and find the mark – all set to the banging drums of the marching band performing in the rally and the US National Anthem. It’s an exceptionally tense and well-executed sequence that evokes the spy films of the 70s and (even more impressively) features virtually no dialogue.

What is fascinating about this and the other action sequence, which centers on the fallout of the Unity Rally attack, is that we barely know these characters; most of them have not been introduced before the fact and none have a backstory. We know that Rittenhouse (Alan Ruck) works at the newspaper, we see Daniel (Ben Daniels) changing out of drag and Anita (Caitlin Ewald) is introduced working on a car in a mechanic’s garage, but beyond that, they are mysteries. These are one-dimensional characters; they are little more than pawns to be moved around in service of the attack.

And yet, these sequences work because the character details are immaterial. What matters is the action. The film establishes early on that the nearby neighbourhood of Wicker Park was completely destroyed because an uprising was organized there, so the stakes are clear, as is the need to rebel against alien overlords. In these sequences, the rebellion is a stand-in for larger efforts to resist oppression, which still makes for some surprising tension, despite the fact that whether these individuals live or die is ultimately immaterial.

Unfortunately the insurgency is not the main focus of the film, and cutting back to Gabriel and Mulligan makes for some iffy pacing issues that weighs the film down, particularly in its last act. Wyatt’s energetic handheld, closely-shot action sequences help to keep the film feeling dynamic, even as the limited scope of the narrative (which focuses exclusively on this single plot in Chicago) feels somewhat small scale.

The alien spaceship in ‘Captive State’

The limited special effects are serviceable: the aliens, who do not appear often, look like a cross between the beasts from Attack The Block and Splinter, but their rock-like spaceships and their “hunting” suits are cheap and unconvincing. The production looks best when it is firmly situated in the alleys, crawl spaces, back rooms and hidden compartments of poverty-stricken near-future Chicago, which is frequently covered in graffiti and light mist.

Captive State has too many forgettable characters, too little emotional investment and too silly a resolution to strongly recommend. Wyatt’s direction is admirable, particularly in the extended action sequences, and the aesthetics of the film looks great, but overall, interested audiences are encouraged to seek out a stronger property.

I hear Colony’s pretty good.

Captive State Trailer